Home>Campaigns>A look at the 13 legislative districts hosting contested primaries in 2023

Senator Nia Gill at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

A look at the 13 legislative districts hosting contested primaries in 2023

Only a few truly competitive legislative primaries across entire state

By Joey Fox, March 29 2023 12:04 pm

Filing day has come and gone; though petition challenges and write-in candidacies could still shake some things up, we basically know who is running for the New Jersey Legislature this year and who isn’t.

A total of 258 candidates filed to run in the June primary election, but most of them won’t have any opponents on the primary ballot. Of the state’s 40 redrawn legislative districts, 27 will not have any contested primaries, and even among the 13 that do, some won’t be remotely competitive (and some may be thrown out entirely due to insufficient valid signatures).

That’s in large part because of New Jersey’s extremely strong party system. Once county parties award their endorsements and organizational lines to their preferred candidates, unsuccessful candidates tend to drop out of the race – meaning that most of 2023’s primary season happened in convention halls, not on the primary ballot.

Still, there are a few districts that will host serious primary fights, and another few where an underdog challenger could catch fire. Here’s an in-depth look at all 13 districts where voters will have a choice in June.

Top races

LD3 (Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland) – Republican, Democratic

3rd district State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Logan) took out the second-most powerful man in New Jersey state politics. But can he put down an insurgency within his own party?

The story of Durr’s 2021 victory, of course, is now thoroughly entered into New Jersey political legend. An unknown truck driver who spent next to no money on his campaign, Durr rode the Jack Ciattarelli-led red wave to victory over Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), handing a colossal loss to South Jersey Democrats and vaulting himself into the national spotlight.

Things have not proceeded entirely smoothly from there, however. One of Durr’s 2021 running mates, Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Woolwich), developed a toxic relationship with the senator, and started agitating behind the scenes to ditch him.

At first, that meant teaming up with Salem County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum (R-Pilesgrove), who launched his Senate campaign with Sawyer and former Harrison Township Committeeman Adam Wingate as his running mates. But when Durr won the county party endorsement in all three of the 3rd district’s counties, Ostrum chose to end his campaign rather than run off-the-line – forcing Sawyer to shift her strategy.

After considering a number of different options, Sawyer opted this weekend to take on Durr herself. She’s recruited one Assembly candidate – Joseph Collins, the nephew of former Assembly Speaker Jack Collins – to take on Durr’s running mates, Assemblywoman Bethanne McCarthy Patrick (R-Mannington) and Hopewell Township Committeeman Tom Tedesco, though Sawyer says she’s not interested in targeting McCarthy Patrick, her former running mate.

Sawyer’s slate is also affiliated with a renegade ticket in the neighboring 4th legislative district and a full off-the-line slate of county-level candidates in Gloucester County. Durr, meanwhile, is leading the Gloucester Republican establishment’s attempts to defend their recent victories and build out a lasting organization.

South Jersey Democrats are hoping to take advantage of the schism and are making a serious play to retake the district, running a slate of former Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), Gloucester County Commissioner Heather Simmons (D-Glassboro), and nonprofit CEO Dave Bailey.

But they, too, have a primary to contend with. Mario De Santis, a teacher who has run for office several times before, is leading a progressive slate against Burzichelli that also includes Tanzie Youngblood, who was the runner-up in the 2018 Democratic primary for the 2nd congressional district (behind now-Rep. Jeff Van Drew).

Off-the-line Democratic candidates in South Jersey typically put up desultory performances, so the De Santis slate has to prove that they’re capable of running a competitive race. But at minimum, it gives 3rd district progressives an outlet to express their disapproval with Steve Sweeney 2.0.

LD4 (Gloucester, Camden, Atlantic) – Republican

A year ago, shortly after the state’s new legislative map was released, the New Jersey Globe wrote that the 4th district – redrawn to be much less Democratic – may be Republicans’ best pickup opportunity in the state in 2023.

That remains true, but things are not exactly going as Republicans hoped. No fewer than seven Republican candidates are running for the district’s three seats, including two rival slates that are part of the broader factional war in Gloucester County.

The party-endorsed slate, at least in Gloucester and Camden Counties (which make up most of the district), is led by County Commissioner Nick DeSilvio (R-Franklin). A U.S. Navy veteran, DeSilvio first won his county commissioner seat in a 2021 upset; he’s running with Assembly candidates Michael Clark and Denise Gonzalez.

Opposing them for the Republican nomination is Christopher Del Borrello, a former Washington Township councilman running for the Senate, and his running mates Amanda Esposito and Matt Walker. They have the party line in the tiny Atlantic County portion of the 4th district, as well as support from a number of other county party chairs from outside the district.

Most importantly, Del Borrello’s slate is affiliated with Beth Sawyer and her county candidates. With two full slates going head-to-head, it remains to be seen whether the ascendant Gloucester Republican organization is strong enough to protect its preferred candidates – especially if the Sawyer-Del Borrello team gets favorable positioning on the primary ballot.

And just to add one extra factor into the race, a fifth Assembly candidate, John Keating, is also running independently of the two main slates. It’s hard to imagine Keating breaking through given the big names running on other tickets, but he adds one more wrinkle in an already complex race.

Unlike in the 3rd district, Democrats – led by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Washington), who’s running for Senate – don’t have any primary challengers of their own to deal with. That gives them nearly three months to establish themselves while Republicans tear each other apart, a situation they’re likely pleased about.

LD24 (Sussex, Morris, Warren) – Republican

With the exit of former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, the State Senate race in the 24th legislative district went from the state’s most interesting primary to a coronation for Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage). The contest for two Assembly seats, however, is still very much a real race.

Space is running with Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia (R-Franklin) and Chester Mayor Mike Inganamort; they’ll face Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski (R-Independence) and Lafayette board of education president Josh Aikens, who have united on a slate of their own, as well as former congressional candidate Rob Kovic.

Space and his teammates have the Morris organizational line, which accounts for around one-third of the district. But the real fight will happen in Sussex County, which doesn’t have a line at all.

Sarnoski and Aikens have tried to position themselves as the rightmost candidates in the race, a badge of honor in one of the most conservative parts of the state. They’ve also aligned themselves with an off-the-line slate in Morris County that includes a county commissioner candidate, potentially nullifying their disadvantages there.

In a district where party endorsements mean less than just about anywhere else, it’s tough to say anything definitive about the five-way Assembly race – except that it’s competitive.

LD26 (Morris, Passaic) – Republican

Two districts over, Morris County is hosting another intense Republican primary, though the dividing lines are a little clearer in the 26th district.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) is running for re-election alongside Assemblymen Jay Webber (R-Morris Plains) and Brian Bergen (R-Denville); Bergen, whose hometown was shifted by redistricting, is new to most of the district.

Running off-the-line against them are Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo (R-Montville), former Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Parsippany), and former Parsippany Councilman Robert Peluso, who have joined with county commissioner candidate Paul DeGroot to construct a full “Regular Republican Party” slate.

Mastrangelo and DeCroce both competed at the Morris Republican convention in February and got swamped. The result wasn’t a surprise, nor is it a new setback for either politician, both of whom have lost party support for re-election before. (Mastrangelo retained his county commissioner seat off-the-line in 2022, while DeCroce narrowly lost her 2021 Assembly primary to now-Assemblyman Christian Barranco.)

If nothing else, the contest has demonstrated just how much Mastrangelo and Pennacchio dislike each other. After he won the Morris organizational line in a landslide, Pennacchio said that Mastrangelo was in need of medication or therapy for his “political psychosis”; 26th voters will get to experience another two-and-a-half months of similar attacks before someone finally wins.

LD27 (Essex, Passaic) – Democratic

Though legislative redistricting shuffled districts all across the state, only the 27th district will host an incumbent-on-incumbent showdown this year: State Sen./former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) versus State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair). The two septuagenarian senators collectively have 78 years of legislative experience under their belt, so no matter what happens, the contest will mark the end of the road for one of the Senate’s stalwarts.

Codey has the clear upper hand, running on the party line alongside Assemblyman John McKeon (D-West Orange) and Alixon Collazos-Gill, the last-minute replacement for retiring Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Montclair).

Gill, meanwhile, was shunted off the line after failing to maintain good relationships with many party leaders during her time in the legislature. She’s running with two former school board members, Frank Kasper and Eve Robinson.

As now-Essex Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones knows all too well, Gill is capable of winning without party support. But Gill’s campaign has not necessarily demonstrated the same verve as her successful 2003 bid against Jones, and until that changes, it’s hard to see Codey losing.

One further wildcard is former Assemblyman Craig Stanley, who filed at the last minute for a comeback bid 15 years after leaving office. Stanley’s old Assembly district has no overlap with the modern 27th district, so he’s got a lot of work to do to establish himself as a serious challenger.

Other contested primaries

LD12 (Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington) – Republican

New Jersey was robbed of a fascinating election in the 12th district when party-switching State Sen. Sam Thompson (D-Old Bridge), who had defected from the Republican Party because local leaders weren’t backing him for renomination, decided he wouldn’t run for re-election at all.

Thompson’s exit, both from the Republican primary and the general election, gives Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry a frictionless path to the Senate in the solid-red district. But his two running mates, Assemblymen Rob Clifton (R-Matawan) and Alex Sauickie (R-Jackson), aren’t out of the woods yet.

They face a single primary challenger in Old Bridge board of education president Salvatore Giordano, who is running on the descriptive “Old Bridge Board of Education President” line.

The 23-year-old Giordano clearly has experience winning elections in Old Bridge, the largest town in the sprawling 12th district. Defeating incumbent assemblymen who haven’t given Republican primary voters any reason to distrust them, though, is probably a leap too far.

LD14 (Mercer, Middlesex) – Republican

Before filing day, 14th district Democrats hosted one of the year’s most interesting primaries. 

With Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) running for county executive, two Democrats, Tennille McCoy and Rick Carabelli, filed to compete against one another for his seat. But at the Mercer Democratic convention, both McCoy and Carabelli won the county line, with incumbent Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) coming in third place.

The startling result set off a scramble to save DeAngelo, and it worked; he got first place at the Middlesex Democratic convention with McCoy in second, and Carabelli dropped out soon afterwards. Despite still not technically having the line in Mercer County, DeAngelo is running unopposed for another term, with McCoy likely set to join him.

Instead, the primary action in the 14th district will come on the Republican side. Adam Elias and Skye Gilmartin have the Republican line for Assembly in the marginally competitive district, while Bina Shah, who was a Republican nominee in both 2019 and 2021, is running off-the-line after falling well short of getting the party endorsement.

LD18 (Middlesex) – Democratic

Out of the 13 districts with contested primaries, the 18th district may be the flimsiest of them all. Christopher Binetti, an adjunct professor whose main focus is increasing Italian American representation in politics, is waging a lonely Democratic primary campaign against State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield).

That’s not a winning campaign strategy regardless, but there’s a solid chance Binetti doesn’t make the ballot at all. His petitions include just 102 signatures, meaning that the Middlesex Democratic organization would only have to invalidate three signatures to end his campaign before it begins.

LD19 (Middlesex) – Democratic

A similarly longshot campaign is being waged in the neighboring 19th district, where former state Department of Children and Families supervisor Michelle Burwell is taking on State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge).

Unlike Binetti, Burwell has plenty of signatures, so she’ll almost certainly make the ballot. But beyond that, it doesn’t look like her campaign against the Senate Health Committee chairman is likely to go anywhere.

LD20 (Union) – Democratic

On paper, State Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union) and his Assembly running mates are facing an entire slate of Democratic primary challengers. But in practice, it’s unlikely that the incumbent legislators are really the target of a challenge at all.

All three of the 20th district challengers have addresses in Roselle; the ticket’s Senate candidate, Angela Alvey-Wimbush, is a member of the Roselle Board of Education. Not coincidentally, former Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle) is running off-the-line to retake the Roselle mayor’s office this year.

In all likelihood, the off-the-line challengers in the 20th district are meant to build out Holley’s slate and give him a boost in his mayoral race. It may work for that specific purpose, but the chances of anyone besides Holley winning off-the-line are slim to none.

LD23 (Warren, Somerset, Hunterdon) – Democratic

The sprawling, strongly Republican 23rd district in West Jersey isn’t the type of place one expects to see a Democratic primary; it’s tough for Democrats to find enough candidates to even fill out their slate, let alone prompt a contested primary.

But that would be underestimating the doggedness of Roger Bacon, a pro-Trump Democrat who is now on his eighth campaign for public office. Bacon, running for the Senate on the “Drain the Swamp in Trenton Now!” line, is barreling towards a landslide loss against Denise King, the perfectly unobjectionable party-endorsed Democrat.

LD28 (Essex, Union) – Democratic

When Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-South Orange) announced she would retire from the legislature this year, it didn’t take long for Essex Democratic leaders to decide on her anointed successor: Garnet Hall, the deputy Essex County Clerk and a Maplewood native. 

That could have been the end of the story, but former Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee decided to contest the party’s choices. He’s running, alone, on the “Democrats, Change… It’s Up to Us” slogan against Hall and incumbent Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark).

McGehee’s strategy may rest on supercharged support in Maplewood and the neighboring community of South Orange, two politically engaged towns that can deliver thousands of votes. They only make up a fraction of the district, though, and unless McGehee can make serious inroads off-the-line in Newark and Irvington, his campaign math just doesn’t add up.

LD31 (Hudson) – Democratic

Anti-establishment Hudson County progressives, facing one of the most powerful machines in New Jersey, have managed to notch some successes at the local level in recent years, including the election of two Jersey City councilmen. But state legislative and county races, where the party line exerts its strongest influence, have remained out of reach.

Two Democrats in the 31st district, Senate candidate Michael Griffin and Assembly candidate Shanelle Smith, are working to change that this year. Joined by a slate of county-level candidates, they’re running on the “Progressive Democrats of New Jersey” line against a 31st district ticket led by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City).

Interestingly, the gentrifying 32nd district – the true hotbed of Hudson progressives – didn’t draw any similar challengers. Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City) and his running mates (who, it should be noted, are quite progressive themselves) won’t have any Democratic primary competition as they run to represent downtown Jersey City and Hoboken.

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